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Comac’s Key Canuk

It is common knowledge China’s economy is currently the envy of its fellow G20 member nations.


April 14, 2010
By Frederick K. Larkin

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It is common knowledge China’s economy is currently the envy of its fellow G20 member nations. The country’s improving standard of living is fuelling the demand for domestic air services and as a result the government is embarking on an ambitious program to develop its own commercial airliners. What is far less known is a Canadian is playing a key role in that project. Before we focus on that individual and learn how he expects to contribute, it is useful to review how the Chinese aviation industry has evolved.

comac
Kevin Parker in an ARJ21 Simulator built by CAE.

PHOTO: Capt. kevin Parker

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) celebrated its 60th anniversary last October. The PRC represents the latest iteration of a society that has been around for thousands of years. For many centuries, China was a global leader in the development of arts and sciences. This record of innovation was interrupted during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of civil unrest, wars and famines. However, during the past 30 years this socialist nation has recognized some of the benefits associated with a market-oriented economy and the results have been staggering. Today, China boasts a Gross Domestic Product of approximately US$8 trillion – ranking it as the world’s second largest economy after the United States (US$14 trillion) and ahead of third place Japan (US$5 trillion).

In concert with this growth in economic activity has been the expansion of the country’s domestic airline industry and the infrastructure that supports it. Chinese domestic air travel is expected to increase at a compound rate of 8 per cent over the next 20 years. During the next five years, some 50 new airports are to be built to supplement the roughly 425 that currently exist. Today, Airbus and Boeing models dominate the fleets of China’s major airlines. To meet the demand for increased domestic air travel, a requirement for 3,800 airliners is forecast over the next 20 years. Currently, the fleet stands at approximately 1,200 aircraft.

Given this opportunity, the Chinese have decided to develop an indigenous source of air transport equipment. This has lead to the creation of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd. (COMAC) in Shanghai on May 11, 2008. COMAC’s shareholders include the Chinese central government, the city of Shanghai and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).  The production of sophisticated airliners is not a foreign concept for AVIC, as it and the Tianjin Free Trade Zone together hold a 49 per cent interest in the Airbus A320 Family Final Assembly Line China (FALC) operation at Tianjin. Last year, FALC produced and delivered six A320s and five A319s to Chinese customers. Its annual production rate is expected to ramp up to 48 units by the end of next year.

The success of COMAC’s mission will be dependent upon two airliner models: the first is the ARJ21-700. Billed as an Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st century, its design resembles a Douglas DC-9-10 with winglets and high bypass turbofans. The ARJ21Project was initiated by AVIC in March 2002, then inherited by COMAC in late 2008. With General Electric CF34-10A engines (similar to those on the Embraer 190), it is designed to carry 75-90 passengers over short to medium stage lengths. The first prototype flew on November 28, 2008 and now three aircraft are in the flight test program. COMAC has reportedly received orders for almost 250 ARJ21-700s, with the first delivery expected by the end of this year. The ARJ21-900, a stretched variant with a seat capacity of 95-105, is a proposed follow-on model.

The second airliner model is the C919. Designed for medium-long range routes, this 168-190 seat narrow-body twin is targeted to compete with the Airbus A321 and the Boeing 737-800. With engines from CFM International, the prototype is due to fly in 2014 followed by initial deliveries in 2016. Demand is forecast to reach 2,000-2,500 units over two decades. The standard aircraft is expected to provide a 2,200 nautical mile range, while an extended range model is to have a 3,000 nautical mile capability.

The assembly of a team of professionals who have demonstrated talents in such disciplines as engineering, design, production, marketing and flight test will be crucial to the success of COMAC. It is therefore worthy of note that a Canadian has been selected as the assistant chief designer and as the deputy chief pilot. His name is Kevin Parker and his career has prepared him for this exciting and challenging opportunity.

A native of London, Ont., and a 1980 graduate of Sault College’s Aviation Technology program in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Parker flew as a Crew Commander and as an Instructor with the Canadian Forces aboard Lockheed CP-140 Auroras at Comox, B.C. and Greenwood, N.S. He later was a Captain with Nationair Canada aboard DC-8-60s, 757-200s and 747-200s. His entrepreneurial skills were then displayed as the founder and managing director of Aircrew Training Systems, where he developed courseware related to Airbus A320/330/340s for clients such as Air Canada, Canada 3000 and Transport Canada. That decade of experience earned him a position with CAE, where he spent two years as the director of Flight Training and Standards for the Americas and Asia, followed by five years as the director of Training at CAE’s centre at Zhuhai, China.
 
In September, 2009, he was appointed to his dual roles at COMAC in Shanghai. In an exclusive interview with Wings, Parker explained how he landed in his current situation, and what the future might hold.

WINGS: How did a Canadian pilot end up playing such an important role in this potentially history making Chinese company?

PARKER: After working at the Zhuhai Flight Training Center in China for five years, I had built up a valuable network of relationships with aviation professionals. My job allowed me to come to know many important people in China, some of whom were involved in the ARJ21 program. When my friends heard I was available, it wasn’t long before I received an offer to work at COMAC.

COMAC is set to hire as many as 100 experts as part of an overall plan by the central government to expand the aircraft manufacturing industry. All of the experts will be expatriates. I am proud I was invited to be the first to be hired for the Customer Service Center. I am also proud a Canadian was chosen. As a product of Sault College’s aviation program and the Canadian Armed Forces, the training I received in these places game me the best foundation on which to build my career. Canada needs to know how well respected our aviation professionals are around the world. Even Canadian aviation companies tend to rely too much on outside support when the true expertise lies at their doorstep.

WINGS:  What are the key responsibilities associated with each of your two titles?

PARKER:  My role as deputy chief pilot is pretty straightforward. However, at this time we have not hired a chief pilot, so I am acting as chief pilot as well. I am responsible for Flight Operations Support. This includes the design and development of all the flight training programs, training devices and Center certification. I’m also responsible for all instructor training programs and training delivery both at the training center and in the aircraft. After aircraft delivery, our pilots will be assisting clients to install the ARJ21 into their fleets which will mean line operations training and support.

As Assistant Chief Designer, I work for COMAC Head Office where I provide support to the rest of the company for design issues related to the ARJ21 and the new C919 programs. This support is mainly in the form of advice regarding man-machine interface, cockpit design and flight operations. At present, most of my time is being spent on the ARJ21 as we prepare for delivery of the first aircraft.

WINGS: The Chinese domestic market appears to have huge potential for airliner manufacturers over the next two decades. Do you see COMAC’s ambitions being fulfilled?

PARKER: Absolutely! This is China’s third attempt at expanding their aviation industry. The Chinese excel at learning from the past and everyone here feels they are on the right track this time. The ARJ21 is a composite aircraft which, I’m sure most would agree, is the smartest way to produce your first aircraft. Using proven systems and technologies gives the project a greater likelihood of success and more acceptability in the market. Reaching out to the industry and hiring people with proven track records to step in to support the development of COMAC shows their desire to be successful. Combining western talent with the best people in the industry in China makes what I see as a winning team. With many B737 and A320 fleets in China scheduled for replacement around 2015, the C919 will be delivered on time to take advantage of that program. Globally, the C919 will be a strong competitor in the single aisle/twin jet market. Everyone here is excited about the challenge of going head-to-head with Airbus and Boeing.

WINGS: The dramatic forecast for aircraft requirements in China implies strong demand for pilots, AMEs, etc. What other opportunities might present themselves?

PARKER: There is a great deal of focus from the industry on Asia and China in particular. My experience has been that while many people want to explore opportunities here, they don’t know where to start. Many who do jump in, do so while applying western norms to business and to life. This inevitably ends in failure or at least a very expensive lesson learned. If you are able to leave your ego at home, open your mind and accept the culture for what it is, you can do well here. You can’t come to China thinking you’re going to do anything your way. For those who can be flexible in their approach and work in this way, it can be a very rewarding experience. China is keen to have the West’s help in building their future. But, the building will take place using their terms. Many airlines are hiring pilots in China on contracts ranging from two to three years. It is a great opportunity for the right people. Unfortunately, for most, these airlines are only looking for current Captains.

WINGS: Could Canadian companies participate in the dramatic evolution of China’s aviation industry?

PARKER: There are several Canadian companies taking advantage of the demands here in China. There are airlines hiring in all areas of flight operations. However, as mentioned, individuals need to understand that living and working here is not for everyone. Along with the strong need for flight and maintenance personnel, is a similar need for these people to have English language skills. I feel this provides a great opportunity to the post secondary education institutions in Canada to partner with schools in China to provide candidates for training as pilots, ATC Controllers and AMEs. Programs which provide a shared education with several years being taught in Canada would be ideal. Technology companies have either already started doing business here or have made a decision not to. The opportunity for Canada, I feel, comes more from education and helping prepare candidates for high tech jobs in China with international scope. This means the candidate would have a broad international education along with a strong set of language skills. The airline industry here is growing at an historic rate. Canadian companies involved in all areas related to aviation would be foolish not to consider doing business here.

WINGS: With respect to your job, what gets your turbines spinning at the start of each day?

PARKER: The short answer is blue skies and a clean sheet of paper. Blue skies because that is somewhat rare in Shanghai. There are variations on the theme, but we get less blue skies here than in Zhuhai. It may have something to do with having 10 times the population. Shanghai has about 22 million people. I feel China is still new to me and flying around in clear skies allows me to see the sights better. It’s a beautiful country with marvellous landscapes, so it’s great when I can see that clearly. The clean sheet of paper represents the opportunity I have here at COMAC. Pilots and training managers everywhere dream of some day having the chance to write SOPs, FOM and standards for an OEM. In essence, this job has given me a clean sheet of paper to build a team, design the programs and set the standards. New Aircraft OEMs with the potential to be another Airbus or Boeing aren’t born every day. Being the first pilot hired by such a company is the opportunity of a lifetime. I am proud of the achievement and at the same time humbled by the trust being placed in me by the senior management of the Company.

The Chinese are developing a commercial aircraft enterprise that has the potential of significantly modifying the current competitive landscape. Forty years ago Japanese automakers began to pursue the North American market – a fortress that was deemed to be impenetrable. Regardless of the industry, any new manufacturer that develops a product that is competitive with established products in terms of performance, reliability, quality of finish, after-sale support, selling price and cost of production can expect to take market share from the incumbents.